Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 17: Two political trends leading up to the Civil War

In my third pass this month at Avery Craven's Lost Cause/neo-Confederate essay Coming of the War Between the States: An Interpretation Journal of Southern History 2:3 (Aug 1936).

He describes how the Northern states had developed into non-slave states and their pernicious about freedom and democracy:
The general period in American history from 1825 to 1860 was one of vast material growth and expansion. But it was also one in which the wealth and power of the few grew disproportionately to that of the many. Democracy was not functioning properly. Liberty was putting an end to equality. I£ some were content, others felt deepest resentments and dreamed of a more perfect society as the political and moral right of an American.
Those decadent Yankees started getting all grumpy about economic slumps, and the gap between rich and poor, and the restrictions on opportunities for the common people. He notes in particular, "the Panic of '37 spread wreck and ruin among them; land legislation lagged behind their demands; internal improvements came all too slowly; prices slumped as home markets broke and "overproduction" glutted the few outside markets they had developed."

And the baneful social phenomena multiplied. There was "unrest," and protest, and (gasp!) labor activism:
The rural North, therefore, throughout the era, was a region of potential and actual unrest. The "average farmer," for whose welfare the American system had been established, resented bitterly the growing importance of the city and the mounting wealth of those engaged in what he considered "minor pursuits." Securing the support of the lesser folk of the towns, only recently come from nearby farms, he launched his protests in various forms, but all in the name of a faltering democracy. The labor movements of the period, says Commons, were "not so much the modern alignment of wage-earner against employer" as they were the revolts of "the poor against the rich, the worker against the owner."
Even worse, people started thinking, "The cause of the oppressed was also the cause of 'righteousness'." The Northern public started obsessing about "democracy and morality." Some were even deciding that "Jeffersonian Democracy was God's chosen form of civil government."

He summarizes the unfolding of these threatening democratic movements in various stages:
The Jacksonian war against "the money power" in an earlier period was "from this same cloth." It represented far more the deep resentments of a "grasping" people than it did a belief in abstract ideals. The same holds, in a degree, for the so-called "free-soil" movement. Historians have largely overlooked the fact that the "liberty groups" with a single human rights appeal failed to gain any great following in the Northwest - but that when Salmon P. Chase, the Democrat, broadened the platform to one in which homesteads, internal improvements at Federal expense, and home markets by tariffs, were included, the moral indignation against slavery rose to a burning flame. A local convention in Chicago in 1848 resolved that the [anti-slavery] Wilmot Proviso "is now and ever has been the doctrine of the Whigs of the free States" and added hastily, "the Whig party has ever been the firm, steady, and unchanging friend of harbor and river appropriations." Lincoln himself would keep slavery from the territories because God had intended them "for the homes of free white people." The Wisconsin farmer, whose interest in Negroes was slight, did not further heckle this great Commoner when the assurance was given that the prime purpose behind his program was a 160-acre farm for all interested persons. Thus the halo of democracy and morality, in part borrowed from the abolitionist, was placed upon the brow of all vital Western needs, and its bitterness from unrealized ambitions became a holy sentiment. [my emphasis]
The trajectory of unfavorable democratic developments in Craven's neo-Confederate view ran from Jeffersonian democracy, to Jacksonian reformism, to the Free Soil and Abolitionist movements to land reform to Lincoln and the Republicans. Jefferson and James Madison were "abolitionist slaveowners," Andrew Jackson was a non-abolitionist slaveowner, but the trend toward expansion of democracy, restriction and abolition of slavery, resistance to concentrated economic power and oligarchic government: those did develop along the lines Craven describes, though from a democratic point of view that was a favorable line of develop, while Craven disparages it. Lincoln himself took Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as his main Presidential models.

Especially in these strange times where the Democratic Party declines to claim its own founders and the corrupt, democracy-hating plutocrat Donald Trump adopts Andrew Jackson as a major symbol - a truly twisted and bizarre development - I should add that none of these developments were democratically pure by 2018 standards. The women's movement for the vote and legal equality had begun, but American women were second-class citizens, at best. Even white Abolitionists generally accepted some kind of white supremacist outlook, with even some of the most militant and serious anti-slavery activists embracing the fantasy of of mass colonization of black Americans to Africa. Or, mass deportation, to put it less euphemistically. Even those egalitarian land policies Craven mentions were heavily predicated on current and former Indian lands being distributed to white settlers and the native peoples displaced. And the list goes on.

But the single biggest and most consequential political conflict was over slavery with all its class, racial, and political aspects. And the developments that led eventually to the defeat of the slaveocracy and the abolition of chattel slavery did travel the historical path Craven describes (in a hostile mode). And the road that led to secession goes through the political trend represented by John Calhoun, Jackson's great adversary in Nullification Controversy. Craven clearly sympathizes with the Calhounian tradition:
When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, certain old leaders such as Martin Van Buren, Francis Preston Blair, and Thomas H. Benton were pushed aside. Each in turn blamed John C. Calhoun and the slave interests; each in a different way added to the impression that the party was no longer a fit place for those who followed the immortal Andrew Jackson.
This is a big problem not only with the pseudohistory that makes Donald Trump the Second Coming of William Jennings Bryan. It's also a problem for what seems to be the currently dominant left/left-liberal view of American history, in which the monarchist Alexander Hamilton that believed democracy could function only through massive corruption is a great hero and Jefferson and Jackson are not only personally dastardly but contemptible in their political and political heritage.

It's just not possible to understand the history leading up to the Civil War without understanding the fundamental difference between the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian trend and the Calhounian trend. One led to an expansion of democracy and the presentation of the United States as a democratic Republic. The other led to a civil war in defense of slavery. That's a big difference.

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